By Michael L. Cook of Schulte, Roth & Zabel LLP
Bankruptcy Code §363(f)(1) empowers a bankruptcy court to order a debtor’s assets sold “free and clear of any interest in such property.” Courts in the business bankruptcy context have been wrestling with successor liability, i.e., whether an asset buyer can be held liable for the debtor-seller’s liabilities. In 2009, the Second Circuit affirmed a bankruptcy court order barring creditors of the selling debtor from pursuing the asset buyer “for product defects in vehicles produced by” the debtor. In re Chrysler LLC, 576 F.3d 108, 123-24 (2d Cir. 2009), vacated as moot, 558 U.S. 1087 (2009) (held, successor liability claims are interests covered by a sale order under Code § 363(f)(1)).
Most recently, on July 13, 2016, the Second Circuit held that the bankruptcy court’s asset sale order in the General Motors reorganization case limiting specific pre-bankruptcy product liability claims required prior “actual or direct mail notice” to claimants when the debtor “knew or reasonably should have known about the claims.” In re Motors Liquidation Co., 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 12848, *46-47 (2d Cir. July 13, 2016). Although the substance of the sale order may have been enforceable otherwise, “mere publication notice” to known or knowable claimants was insufficient. Had the complaining product liability claimants received adequate notice, reasoned the court, they “could have had some negotiating leverage [regarding the terms of any sale order] . . . and [a meaningful] opportunity to participate in the proceedings.” Id. at *61. The court noted a “trend…toward a more expansive reading of ‘interests in property’ which encompasses other obligations that may flow from ownership of the property.” Id., at 124, citing In re Trans World Airlines, Inc., 322 F. 3d 283, 285-90 (3d Cir. 2003).
The full memo is available here.